The Signpost


On paid editing and advocacy: when the Bright Line fails to shine, and what we can do about it

There are various views on paid editing on Wikipedia, among them, a suggestion that it should be explicitly forbidden. However, another standard is the Bright Line, as suggested by founder Jimbo Wales

The state-of-the-art in conflict of interest engagement is commonly called the "Bright Line" rule, from a quote by Jimmy Wales when he first outlined the concept in 2012. It basically goes like this: "I am opposed to allowing paid advocates to edit in article space at all, but am extremely supportive of them being given other helpful paths to assist us".

We immediately embraced this new development. After all, our greatest challenge over time was not the research and writing, nor aligning client goals with Wikipedia's mission, but rather the uncertainty involved in navigating a community that has as many views on paid advocacy as there are members. The Bright Line was an elegant solution, simplifying the process and making it more comprehensible for editors and clients alike.

It had other benefits, too: more feedback makes for better articles, and volunteer editors can help clarify things for a "lay audience". Sometimes clients are pushy, and it’s helpful to be able to use editor review as a backstop. Occasionally, it will even spark a great collaboration: identifying additional areas for improvement neither side would have found alone.

When the Bright Line does not work

The Bright Line can work, and we (and others who have embraced it) are proof. But after three years of following its prescripts, we are all too aware of the times when it does not. Jimbo's elegant solution comes with its own limitations, challenges, and even contradictions. Here are several reasons the status quo can and should be improved:

A proposed "First Amendment" to the Bright Line constitution

Signpost poll
Do you support the Bright Line rule?
  Yes, unequivocally (58%; 33 votes)
  Yes, with reservations (28%; 16 votes)
  Not at all (14%; 8 votes)

These problems raise an obvious question: what needs to be done? We have one short term suggestion that would immediately relieve some of the burden on volunteer editors and the wait times for adherents: The Bright Line should include an allowance for "maintenance edits".

Currently, the Bright Line allows exceptions for "emergency edits" that are comparatively rare: missed (obvious) vandalism and libel. A simple fix would be to allow for "maintenance edits" such as de-orphaning an article and removing the template afterward.

By applying common sense and allowing for edits that do not alter previous editorial decisions, the burden on volunteer editors can be eased, and neglected entries can be improved. To assuage concerns of potential abuse, COI editors might be required to use a standard edit summary such as "COI maintenance edit" so a filter could be created for identification and review.

Let's start over

The nuclear option, of course, would be to abandon the Bright Line altogether. While we wouldn't necessarily encourage doing so at this time, there is one (however unlikely) scenario in which doing so would make a great deal of sense: if Flagged Revisions were to make a comeback. Especially in light of the recent GamerGate debacle, the only difference really is whether the debate over GamerGate-inspired edits should have been a public game of whack-a-mole or a semi-public queue for editorial review.

In this scenario, editors with paid conflicts would receive scrutiny, and with new community infrastructure—not to mention some valuable gamification—they would be more likely to receive it in a timely manner. The uncertainty of how to participate and the absurdity of asking for help when the correction is obvious would be reduced, if not altogether eliminated.

A more elegant solution

Given our years of experience with client requests, we are comfortable explaining how Wikipedia works even to skeptical clients. Knowing how complex even "simple" requests can be, and how important it is to get things right, sometimes the months of research, writing and discussion are necessary. But the Bright Line in its current form makes no distinction between that which deserves careful scrutiny and those requiring a lighter touch. A few common sense adjustments would make the Bright Line easier to explain, more likely to be followed, and free Wikipedia volunteers to focus on more important things.

For more Signpost coverage on paid editing see our paid editing series.

William Beutler and 16912 Rhiannon are principals in a digital consultancy that specializes in online community content, including Wikipedia.

On Friday, July 17 at 16:45 (Mexico City time), William Beutler will be leading (with Andrew Lih) the Wikimania roundtable discussion Can Conflicts of Interest (COIs) be aligned with the Wikimedia project? Please join him to discuss this idea as well as anything else related to COI/paid editing.

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  • Who decides "deserves careful scrutiny"? — Neonorange (talk) 02:01, 17 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • It seems to me that fixing a typo or other trivial maintenance work could be done by COI editors if, as suggested in this op-ed, they clearly flagged in their edit summary that they are a COI editor and that other editors are encouraged to review the edit for appropriateness. I'm considerably more concerned about the work of undeclared COI editors than COI editors who are transparent and are making good-faith efforts to comply with Wikipedia policies. Unfortunately, there seem to be a substantial number of COI editors who don't know the rules, and some who actively engage in unethical conduct. How to improve this situation is under discussion in many places, on and off wiki, among good-faith editors. --Pine 05:40, 17 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • There are a couple of paid COI editors who I assist by carefully examining the version they prefer (typically posted in their userspace) and any comments from other editors on the article talk page and then replacing the existing article if it is an improvement. Often I suggest changes first. Of course I take full responsibility for what I post, and the paid COI editor must follow the advice at Wikipedia:Plain and simple conflict of interest guide or I will not help him/her. I would be willing to expand the number of paid COI editors I help in this way, and I encourage other Wikipedia editors to help as well.
The best way to discourage stealth/biased paid COI editors is for their customers to see that they are wasting their money paying for edits that are quickly removed, and to see that money spent on paid COI editors who follow WP:BPCA and WP:PSCOI results in a much-improved article that doesn't get reverted. As editors, we need to support the good guys and hinder the bad guys. --Guy Macon (talk) 13:56, 17 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • With regard to "if Flagged Revisions were to make a comeback", it sounds like the authors think this doesn't exist on the English Wikipedia. But it does. It's called "pending changes protection". You can see the queue here. So one option to the COI issue would be to have a mechanism by which a COI editor could put a proposed edit into that queue - for example, a "Submit as a pending change" button. -- John Broughton (♫♫) 17:20, 17 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • We have things called Wikipedia guidelines and policies. The "bright line rule" is an attempt to make a fake guideline/policy that has not actually gone through the procedure one normally goes through to make a real guideline/policy. Ken Arromdee (talk) 19:41, 17 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • This seemed contradictory. You expect someone with a conflict of interest to disclose it, and then not edit the topic for which they have a conflict? Does that really seem likely. What if someone doesn't disclose it, but only makes good solid edits with reliable sources, no one was hurt. Popish Plot (talk) 19:54, 17 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • I would be okay with "emergency" edits like BLP- and vandal-fixes and other edits that a banned editor is allowed to make. I would also be okay with respect to edits to pending-change-protected articles OR where the edit is similarly "held for review, a mechanism where paid editors could make clerical/maintenance edits as described in the Signpost article, provided that the edit is clearly labeled "paid edit." A new "paid edit" tag for such edits would be very helpful for those watching the change-log. I would be against opening paid editors to making edits that are immediately visible unless that same edit would be allowed by a banned editor (e.g. BLP-violation and vandalism-undoing edits). — Preceding unsigned comment added by Davidwr (talkcontribs)
  • "The best way to discourage stealth/biased paid COI editors is for their customers to see that they are wasting their money paying for edits that are quickly removed." Guy Macon has it exactly right. The problem is that the client is almost always paying for biased editing and the editor is promising that the editing will stick. Like all Wikipedia's editing problems, policing this behavior is labor intensive. Solving this problem is otherwise unrealistic. Chris Troutman (talk) 11:09, 18 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • The "bright line rule" is not actually a guarantee of safety--I see it more as a minimum expectation. The real rule is WP:NPOV, and the number of paid editors I trust to always follow what I consider NPOV is very low. Many of them have by now learned enough not to f=delete negative material, but the inclination to insert positive material that a true npov editor would not have inserted is almost always there. More to the point proposed here, I have seen on wiki and at otrs a considerable number of company PR staff wishing to make routine updating changes. For about 2/3 the cases, there's no problem at all--often it's just a mater of substituting the new logo. For the other half, either they are trying to insert advertising under the guise of routine fixes--not necessarily in bad faith,; rather, they do not really understand the difference, or the article has so many previous problems that it needs drastic rewriting or removal, and the updating may well be to material which should be there in the first place. It is extremely hard for any editor to be truly NPOV in all respects--if we didn't care about it, we wouldn't be working on it. But in practice monetary compensation has a unique effect that other forms of pov do not. (that doesn't mean that some of them aren't equally harmful in other ways--I'm thinking of edits by fans of a performer or political supporters of a POV, or alumni of a college), DGG ( talk ) 09:36, 19 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • You said "if we didn't care about it, we wouldn't be working on it." By and large, that's true. However, every now and then when I have a few moments to spare, I click "random article" and either do clerical cleanup or actually add content to an article whose subject I don't really care about. I guess you are right in one sense though - I spend time working on "it" not because I a care about that topic or that article but because I care about the project as a whole. There are others - mostly those who "patrol" things like new-pages/recent-changes or who patrol cleanup- or similar categories - who edit articles whose contents they don't care about much more than I do. Yes, I know you know all of this already, I'm writing it more for the benefit of new editors and non-editors who may stumble across this page. davidwr/(talk)/(contribs) 04:06, 20 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]


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